Director: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P.Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons
Studio: Fox 2000 Pictures
Katherine Johnson. Dorothy Vaughn. Mary Jackson. Three names that helped define America during the space race. Three highly intelligent woman who helped pave ways for women within industries, hidden in the history books. Hidden, that is, until now with the latest film by Theodore Melfi recounts the remarkable exploits of these ladies as they impacted scientists worldwide during the segregated sixties.
Hidden Figures is split into three narrative strands, each retelling the real life accomplishments of these three women. Katharine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) works as a “computer” within the segregated West Area Computers division of NASA. Described as the smartest brain mathematically by her unofficial supervisor Dorothy Vaughn, Johnson is moved to the Space Task Group due to her skills in analytic geometry. Under the authority of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), Johnson begins to aid in finding the hidden maths needed to allow a person to orbit the planet. With her being the first African-American employee within this division, Hidden Figures explores the revolution that her job position brought to the industry of space travel.
Although Johnson’s story is the main focus of this narrative, time is given to both Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) in an almost equal measure. Vaughn, as an unofficial supervisor (unavailable to get the official status due to her skin colour) educates herself in the language of IBM. Becoming an expert in this new field, the film recounts how her intelligence brought in a new understanding of computers. Mary Jackson is also allowed to be expressed onscreen. As a mechanically minded individual, her personal story retells the conflict she received in being employed within NASA’s engineering department.
Interlaced around each other, these three narratives are played in such a way that all necessary facts – both good and bad – are retold in an easy to understand manner. Dealing with the non-glamourous aspect of space travel, Hidden Figures never attempts to glance over the racist and segregated attitudes of the time, and the difficulty it brought to these three highly important individuals. Whether it’s the subtle inclusion of Johnson’s peers refusing to share the same coffee as her, or the direct reference to glass ceilings placed as obstacles in their career development due to their ethnicity, Hidden Figures manages to fully showcase the level of prejudice given to the African-American community at the time.
One key scene within the middle of the film, involving Costner’s Harrison smashing a segregation sign outside a toilet, hits hard with an emotional punch due to how impactful this is on the black contingent of characters onscreen. A direct response to the divide in society at the time, it is within moments such as this that Hidden Figures holds a real cultural significance, specifically seen to add depth to the three characters. With the divide still found in some aspects of modern society, this sequence (along with others) holds a real relevance today.
Hidden Figures is a smart movie that creates real empathy at the characters explored. Following them through trials and setbacks within their impactful lives, the three women are fully developed onscreen, and as such create a massive amount of empathy. Bold in presenting a difficult time in American History, the grandeur of space flight is second to the segregation laws that plagued minority communities during the time. Brilliantly written, and expertly portrayed, the three woman are fully realised onscreen – presenting a credibility that achieves an insight into a lost portion of history and the people who defined it.